Wine tasting is an endeavor of sheer endurance.  That is a lesson I have learned through sheer, hard work.

Let me start at the beginning.  Sonoma County, 90 minutes north of San Francisco, is gorgeous wine country.  Picture rolling, lush green hillsides, covered in orderly and beautifully staked and grown grape vines interspersed with aspens, sycamores, wild grasses, flowers of all colors and herbs of all fragrances.  Driving through the winding roads, you roll down the windows and smell the fresh air as if it is something that reaches into your lungs and blows wonder into your every pore.
The morning temperatures are cool and breezy and perhaps a bit foggy.  The perfect temperatures to put on a sweater, drink some hot coffee and set off on a day of exploration for the senses.  The afternoon warms you up just enough to sun your face and make you feel like you should find the closest hammock for a nice little nap.  And the evenings… are slow as molasses.  Breathtaking shades of peach and lilac drift through the sky as the sun sinks lazily past the horizon, bringing that hint of chill, making you want to reach for your favorite bottle of pinot noir – or is it zinfandel tonight?
My particular adventure has been in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma Valley.  I have never felt more whole as a person than I feel here.  Life is relatively simple here.  People work hard, they grow the grapes, they make the wines and they sell those beautifully labelled bottles full of dark magic.
Sonoma Valley is best know for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Russian River Valley areas and for their juicy, scrumptious Zinfandels along with world class Sauvignon Blanc (often called “Fume Blanc”) and Cabernets in the distinctive Dry Creek Valley style.
Ferrari-Carano is one of those vineyards that changes one’s life.  You wander up to the Italianate facade and filled with wonder, continue through the magical gardens filled with spring blossoms of cherry and apricot, azaleas and tulips to the fountains and statues, wondering, why can’t I just live here?  Can’t I just move here and leave everything else behind?
And all of this before you even taste the wines!
Wine makers and wine drinkers love to talk about oak.  And given that oak-use is incredibly complicated, it is not surprising.  Oak barrel fermentation, aging in oak, the flavors that oak imparts, the amount of oxidation you get through the porous oak barrels, the type of oak that is used – American, French, Slavonian – and the size of the barrels not to mention the discussions of how the barrels are made and who makes them.
Oak barrels are made in “cooperages,” and each cooperage imparts its own unique character to its barrels.  The staves are the raw materials of oak.  American oak is less dense and can be cut to size.  French oak, with a tighter grain, must be split.  In the most traditional (aka, “best”) cooperages, the staves are left out in the weather for a few years to “condition.”  A lesser cooperage will kiln dry the wood.  Then the staves must be heated to bend the staves into the characteristic shape for a barrel and then roasted for the desired length of time the right amount of “toast”.  The toasting of oak is very important because it determines the flavors that are imparted to the wine.  More butterscotch?  Less smoke?  That is all a function which type of oak and of how the barrel is toasted.
  • White wines tend to show more oak because the wine itself tends to have more delicate flavors and fewer tannins.  The oak  itself has tannins that bind with the proteins in the wine, so whites do not become more tannic with oak fermentation or aging.
  • Red wines on the other hand, already have tannins that have bound with the proteins in the wine. That means that non-neutral oak generally imparts more tannins to red wines than they have naturally.  So, in addition to the vanilla / caramel / butterscotch types of flavors in American oak and the more coconut / hazelnut / smoky flavors in French oak, red wines tend to become more structured in oak barrels.
Two wines that display some oak character:
The Four Foxes Chardonnay is a moderately oaky chardonnay that has had a few years in the bottle.  It is a mellow wine that has notes of apple, pear and apricot with a medium amount of oak.  In contrast, the Treana Chardonnay has a bolder oak character – more rounded in the mouth with riper flavors of peach, apricot and honey.  The dominant flavor of “creme brûlée” is a result of the distinct character of the fairly heavily toasted oak in the wine.
The Lopez de Haro Rioja Reserva is a wonderful example of a red wine whose flavors intertwine seemlessly with oak.  The Temperanillo grape loves oak and as a “reserva,” this wine spends 20 months in a combination of French and American oak, smoothing out its rough edges, aging gently and becoming absolutely delicious.  The Roots Run Deep Winery’s Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon is the equivalent of a big, bold wine in exclusively American oak that Napa is famous for.  It is a burst of black currant and black berries with a deep, caramel, vanilla and leather set of flavors that lingers on the palate.
We hope to see you at Mystic Wine Shoppe soon,
Thanks for reading – Seema

As opening day for the Red Sox approaches, I can tell the fans are getting excited. The problem is and I have to be honest, I am not a baseball fan. I know people LOVE the Red Sox and I appreciate that – I am a fan of wines and would totally fan-girl over some famous winemakers, give critical commentary on their raw materials, their decisions for how to make wines, how to label them, when to release them. And most philosophical, I think people find real depth when thinking of and speaking about baseball – similar to the Truth that is said to lurk in every bottle of wine. The link between the two seems inevitable.

red sox opening day

Photo by: CBS Boston

Being a complete novice though at baseball, I began researching this game that so absorbs and thrills fans. The wisdom among its famous is quite real. For example, some guy named Bob Feller said, “Everyday is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind you and start over. That’s the way life is, with a new game everyday and that is the way baseball is.” Those truly are words to live by. I also loved Tommy LaSorda saying, “There are three types of baseball players, those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened.” Again, this is a very profound life lesson.

But perhaps the person most credited with folksy wisdom in baseball appears to be Yogi Berra. And these seem to be his best quotes:

• “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”

• “It gets late early around here.”

• “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

• “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

• “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”

• “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

• “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

• “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.”

• “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.”

• “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too.”

But to go with all this wisdom, one needs the right wine. What better choice than the Red Sox Club Series Cabernet Sauvignon? Wine consumption grew 40% between 2000 and 2013 and baseball club series labels are sold in many stadiums these days – meaning people are drinking wine at baseball games. Beer is losing its supremacy. This wine is bold and structured, the perfect wine to go with meats off the grill – burgers, ribs and sausages. As a Cabernet Sauvignon, it is not as heavy as some others making it more approachable in the summer heat. But perfect for those “I’m-expecting-it-to-be-warm-but-it’s-still-cold” spring days. It has all the black currant you expect from a Cab but also some subtle hints of chocolate and tobacco, with a nice fruity finish. It is the perfect gift for a baseball fan on opening day!

Enjoy, Seema

I love it when I speak with people and they have strong opinions on wine. Sometimes the opinions are wrong (ahem), but nonetheless, it makes for a lively exchange. For years now, Pinot Noir has had a certain cache, it is the wine grape that has been made into some of the most legendary cuvees of Burgundy, the wellspring of ethereal, elusive, coveted and as a result, unimaginably expensive wines. But in the past few decades, it’s magic has been captured and vinified in the new world. There are purists who would recoil from the idea that one would drink Pinot Noir from anywhere but the golden slopes of Burgundy, but (ahem), they would be wrong.

It turns out that there are valleys in California and Oregon that make just beautiful, scented, delicate, poignant Pinot Noirs. And more recently, the art of Pinot Noir has come to New Zealand.

So what is it about Pinot Noir that is so magical and mysterious? Why do people wax poetic about it? The first thing is that it is a notoriously difficult grape to grow. As the Oxford Companion to Wine states, “Pinot Noir demands more of both the vine-grower and the winemaker…It is a tribute to the unparalleled level of physical excitement generated by tasting one of Burgundy’s better reds that such a high proportion of the world’s most ambitious wine producers want to try their hand with this capricious and extremely variable vine.”

Steve Bird is one such intrepid winemaker. He has dedicated his life to winemaking, coming to it as a high-schooler working at the local winery, studying it in college and then working in wineries his entire life. And his skill is well rewarded in his signature wine, the 2013 Bird Big Barrel Pinot Noir from the Marlborough wine region of the south island of New Zealand.

This wine has some magic in it. When you pour it, it has this amazing gem-like ruby brightness with hints of orange, which indicate it is 5 years old and ready for drinking. Then you smell it. The first impression is of cherry with a light herbal note – maybe mint? But patience is required. This wine has been sitting in this bottle for 5 years now. Swirl it some more – let is open up and relax a bit. Then take another deep breath of it. Now you start of find that elusive quality. It is now full of cherries, a hint of strawberry, some roses and violets and wonderful baking spices, some cloves, some licorice. And yet it remains delicate, there is nothing overt in this wine. It is coy and draws you in. On the palate it is fruity and mouthwatering with just the right amount of silky tannins to make it linger on the finish, again just the right amount.

And voila, one sees that Pinot Noir is indeed able to thrive and prosper outside Burgundy. There are many ways it can express itself. It can put forward its floral character, it can put forward its herbal character; it can be fruity but it can also be savory. But when it is well made, it is always wonderful.

Cheers, Seema (Our local wine expert)

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Steve Bird Winery

The angel on the label of this wine says it all – it is heavenly.  In more ways than one.  Not only is it absolutely, mouth-wateringly delicious, it is grown and made close to the clouds.  Alto Adige, Italy or more primly in Austria, Sudtirol, is a land of soaring mountains and lush green valleys divided by the Adige and Isarco rivers.

This is a rugged landscape that includes breathtaking vistas of little fairytale villages and dramatic snowy peaks that reach over 10,000 feet.  How do they grow vines in this amazing terrain that can also be cold and forbidding?  The answer is very carefully!  On small plots of land, lovingly tended by hundreds of farmers.  St. Michael-Eppan is a cooperative of 340 farmers who farm 380 hectares (939 acres) of land.  Large scale grape production would be impossible in this part of the southern Alps that are characterized by sometimes dizzying slopes.  In order to thrive, the vines are planted on south facing slopes to receive maximum sunlight and receive protection from the cold northerly winds howling down through the high mountains.  And because of the rugged terrain, the grapes must be hand-selected and harvested in small batches.

The Lahn Sauvignon Blanc from St. Michael-Eppan is the flagship wine of this wonderful producer.  Established in 1907 with 27 farmers originally, the winery has hewed to the highest standards of winemaking for over a century.  The limestone-gravel soils give the fruit lovely, floral aromas while aging on the lees and in oak barrels gives the wine a wonderful toasty, soft mouthfeel.  The natural character of the wine – apples, lemons, fresh cut hay – is preserved through careful handling resulting in a wine that is reminiscent of a very high quality Sancerre.  At only $16.99, given the amount of work that goes into the harvesting and winemaking, it is a huge bargain.

St. Michael Eppan John Sauvignon

My husband and I opened this wine after a very busy weekend over take out pizza.  To make it a bit more festive, after the pizza (potato & bacon and pepperoni & mushroom), we broke out a wonderful nutty aged Robusto Gouda, a nice, perfectly ripe Camembert and a borough-market Stilton with an arugula, blueberry and pine nut salad.  This wine stood up to all of it, despite being a cool-climate, relatively delicate white wine.  It was tangy enough to balance out the strong flavors of the pizza, yet fragrant and well structured enough to offset the richness of cheeses.  It was the perfect end to a hectic, exhausting weekend!

Prost!

Seema

Opening a new bottle of wine is like going on a blind date. Is it worth the time and money? What is it really going to be like? I have an idea about what to expect from the profile – nice label, deep ruby color, French – but what do I really know about this bottle?

Well, put your worries aside, I am the matchmaker you have been searching for! This is the type of wine you have when you come home from a long day, you put on your slippers, grab a nice soft brie or Saint Andre cheese from the frig and collapse on the couch to savor the good things in life. No worries about that blind date going horribly wrong – this wine is totally mellow and easy. You might even ask afterwards, is this too good to be true?

chateau De Paraza Cuvee special

The Chateau de Paraza 2014 Cuvee Speciale is a wine with a long pedigree from one of the warmest parts of France, the Languedoc Wine Region or the more painterly name of Le Midi, where famous artists have flocked for generations. The Chateau de Paraza lands have been planted with grapes and olives since the Roman times. The Chateau itself hosted the civil engineer during the reign of Louis XIV who built the Canal du Midi which links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean. While it may have run into problems over the last century, it was revived in 2005 as a family-run winery dedicated to high-quality wine that reflects the beauty of the local vineyards.

The wine itself is a brilliant, dark ruby color – with the wonderful spicy and fruity flavors of its blended grapes. 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre. It has a nose redolent of dark cherries spiced with nutmeg and clove. On the palate, you get a rounded sensation of wild blueberries and black cherries. The tannins are supple, leading to a fresh, fruity finish.

And to top it all off, it is a bargain!

Your wine expert, Seema